How to Write a Memoir: Five Ways of Getting Started

If you want to write a memoir and don’t quite know how to begin, you might start with one of the following five tried and true methods.  The methods may be taken up in any order, singly, or not at all.  But then again, “not at all” might mean just that: no memoir at all.  Best not to choose that. :

  1. The Scribble Down Method: Sit down and toss onto the page all the aspects of  your past you’d like to write about: particular experiences, emotions, people, places, images, metaphors, objects, books, relationships, foods… You name it.  It can be anything, anything at all.  Don’t worry about what comes out or how it’s written.  Get dreamy, free associate, scribble it all down.  Spill until you’re spent—for the moment.  This splatter may be added to at any time—and should be, as more thoughts come to you.  Warning: Now that you’ve opened the spigot, they will.
  2.   The Story Method: Now, if you wish, if this seems right for you, sit down in a comfortable chair and engage in the age-old writer’s exercise: asking yourself what your memoir is to be about.  Here is how it goes: In your easy chair, with your laptop or with a piece of paper and a pen, begin by writing to yourself: “This story is about…” Let the thoughts come and write until you stop.  Next write: “This story is really about…”  Again, write until you stop.  Finally, write: “This story is really about…”  Keep writing, again, until you’re written out.    The goal of this easy exercise is to help you clarify for yourself what your story is, what the purview of your memoir  will be, on both the surface and on the deepest, most essential levels.  It will serve to orient you: the writer who is trying to make a story out of the clutter of life.  With this beginning map at hand, you can set out on your voyage.
  3.   The index card method:  Get yourself a packet or three of index cards.  Any color will do—whichever pleases you—and lined or blank.  On each index card, note down something you’d like to include in your memoir.  Again, these may be incidents, people, cars, etc. Spend index cards like free money.  Toss them in a basket or pile them up into a neat stack. Now you have the ingredients of your memoir (always to be added to, of course).  If you wish, get yourself a little box and plunk them in there.  This is your recipe box, your treasure trove, for your memoir.  If you’re the sort who loves organization, or believes in Divide and Conquer, you can purchase a pack of dividers and sort your cards by subject.  When you sit down in the cool dawn or in the satin-dark of night, you can simply pluck one of the cards and begin to write, or rather cook up, the small dishes which will comprise the banquet of your memoir.
  4. The Pivotal Moment Method: Again, fetch a nice, clean sheet of paper or click yourself up a nice, fresh computer screen.  Now: list all the important moments you would like to include in your slice of autobiography.  Begin writing them, one by one.  Pick out the one that calls to you each time you sit down to write, and conjure it on the page.
  5. The “Just Sit Down—Anywhere, Any time—and Write” Method.  Just write whatever it is that writes itself down.  Collect these issuances, and with time, your memoir will assemble itself like a magnet gathering filings to its heart.

Mind you, if none of the above five methods appeal, just do it your own way:  You might make notes in the bathtub on rubberized notebooks on Thursdays at two o’clock, or sketch ideas on corners of the newspaper while you drink your coffee, or jot thoughts in your secret computer file when you’re supposed to be figuring out your office budget.  The latter, the task of budgeting, come to think of it, might be just onerous and dreaded enough to induce you to engage in the slightly less onerous and dreaded task of writing.  We are all, after all, avoidant, stubborn, rebellious cusses…The bottom line is: Whatever way works, seize it.

*Orlando II, painting by Maud Taber-Thomas.

To see more of her work, go to

Originally published Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

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